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Question Period

PM shrugs off 'smokescreen of secrecy' <br/>around Guergis scandal Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff is accusing Stephen Harper of covering up the Guergis affair in a "smokescreen of secrecy," refusing to come clean with Canadians as to why he forced his minister's resignation.

For the second straight day, the Liberal Leader went after the Prime Minister in Question Period over the circumstances around the resignation of status of women minister Helena Guergis nearly two weeks ago.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe and his MPs kept up the drubbing. But Jack Layton and his New Democrat MPs didn't touch the subject today, asking anything but questions about Ms. Guergis and the business practices of her husband, former Alberta Tory MP Rahim Jaffer.

Even in his scrum after Question Period, Mr. Layton - who avoided the subject yesterday as well - made sure reporters realized that he has other concerns.

"As you can see, in the House of Commons we're trying to raise some of the other issues like people being thrown out of work when even before the government approves a foreign takeover. It's quite shocking what's happening in that situation so we'll use our time in the House accordingly."

The NDP is increasingly distancing itself from the Guergis affair, perhaps sensing that the public is turned off by the sordid allegations. Not Mr. Ignatieff, however.

"The affair remains covered in a smokescreen of secrecy," the Liberal Leader charged. "The Prime Minster didn't ask the minister any questions for seven months and didn't explain why. He acted on secondhand information from some gumshoe and won't say why.

"He forced his own minister's resignation and won't say why. Each time he is asked a question in the House he won't say why."

Mr. Ignatieff has repeatedly asked Mr. Harper why he didn't act sooner by talking to Ms. Guergis or inquire as to her situation after her husband was charged last September with drinking and driving and cocaine possession, charges that were later dropped in a plea bargain.

For his part, Mr. Harper said that he took the appropriate course of action by referring the allegations to the RCMP earlier this month.

Mr. Duceppe, meanwhile, was concerned with the actions of Mr. Jaffer, demanding the Prime Minister confirm that the former MP, who is a principal in the company Green Power Generation, did not lobby any minister or secretary of state.

The Prime Minister would not confirm this.

"I don't have any information about any contract given to Mr. Jaffer. Now there are rules that are in place for lobbyists and we expect the lobbyist to abide by these rules," Mr. Harper said.

But Mr. Duceppe noted that acting as lobbyist doesn't mean that the lobbyist necessarily gets a contract.

"You can conduct lobbying without a contract," Mr. Duceppe said. "When the Prime Minister says that he expects people to comply with the rules did he expect that his Minister for the Status of Women to abide by the rules, obviously he didn't think she did because he fired her. He always speaks in generalities."

The Guergis scandal was not the only issue on the minds of MPs, however, as the Liberals also turned some of their attention to the plight of Canadians stranded abroad by the cloud of volcanic ash.

"Stranded Canadians are not simply growing short on patience," Toronto-area MP Dan McTeague charged. "They are growing short on money. Some require medical care. Families are coping with children while others have business concerns.

"Does the government have any contingency plan whatsoever to assist these Canadians in difficult times, or are they just supposed to, as it were, fend for themselves?"

It appears they will have to. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said he sympathizes with the stranded Canadians but it's a "natural phenomenon that nobody could have predicted."

Mr. Cannon went on to say that officials are monitoring the cloud and he's told embassy officials to help Canadians in "practical ways." But the situation, he says, is improving as some airlines are beginning to fly back from Europe.

(Photo: Reuters)

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